John Passmore in 1967 said that logical positivism

"...is dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes."

Are there any modern philosophers that advocate logical positivism the same way Vienna Circle did? If not, to what principles and views should a philosopher subscribe to be a consistent logical positivist considering all criticisms and refutations?


You might be interested in the wikipedia article on Post-Positivist Verificationists. E.g.

After the fall of logical positivism, verificationism and empiricism more generally lost many adherents. This trend was stopped and in large part reversed in 1980 with the publication of van Fraassen's The Scientific Image. Constructive empiricism states that (1) scientific theories do not aim at truth, but at empirical adequacy; and (2) that their acceptance involves a belief only that they are empirically adequate.

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    This adds nothing to positivism, and is a retrenchment of the position of positivism, where "empirical adequacy" and "truth" are identified as indistinguishable. – Ron Maimon Dec 6 '13 at 15:42
  • If scientific theories does not aim for truth what exactly is there point then? – Neil Meyer Jun 4 '15 at 18:46

There are no modern philosophers who continue the tradition of the Vienna circle. But you're in luck, nearly all physicists continue it, even if they never heard of the Vienna circle. The philosophy started in physics, with Mach and Carnap (who was trained in physics), and it cannot die in physics, because it is essential for understanding physics, at least past 1900. Relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, holography, that's all positivism.

This is why physicists ignore philosophers, and will continue to ignore them, until they get with the ball on this. There are no refutations of positivism, there cannot be, any physicist has grown so comfortable with this position, they can see it is self consistent.

What there was in philosophy was a horrified reaction: it resolved all the classical questions! Instantly. And not in a way that made previous philosophers look good, it showed the questions were meaningless! Of course philosophers buried it, it makes the classics in the field look dated and stupid. It was an academic political nightmare.

But it also has the advantage of being correct, and on the internet the position of academic politics is about as powerful as "First post!". So this can't be hidden. You can read the modern physics literature for modern positivism.

  • Based on a comment of yours, it seems that you do not understand how proofs of consistency must come from outside the system, if the system is susceptible to Gödel's second incompleteness theorem. You appear to have placed the verification axiom outside of science, by saying that "they don't expect to verify the verification principle". That very statement indicates that there are meaningful statements which do not need to pass the verification principle. Do you mean to say that there exists exactly one exempt statement? – labreuer Dec 6 '13 at 16:39
  • I've promoted the above comment to its own question: Does Gödel's second incompleteness theorem interact with logical positivism? – labreuer Dec 6 '13 at 19:34
  • @labreuer: There are exactly as many exempt statements as are used to define what words mean. The verification principle is a definition of meaning, and as a definition it is exempt. Other definitions are also exempt, they are axioms that define terms precisely. It is never a problem in positivism, and it is only someone who doesn't understand the philosophy at all that can consider this a criticism (really). The idea that "verification can't be verified" is obvious to any positivist, it's not worrying, anymore than saying a "froobah" is a horse with three legs. Why? I just defined it! – Ron Maimon Dec 12 '13 at 1:41
  • I answered there, it's nothing to do with Godel. The objections are also kind of silly, the method to state positivism is as an equivalence relation between computational models of knowledge--- two systems that predict the same sense experience are equivalent. This doesn't require you to separate sense-experience and non-sense-experience, just to be able to tell when a prediction for sense-experience matches sense-experience, something you can program a computer with a camera and a microphone to do. – Ron Maimon Dec 12 '13 at 2:53
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    @jobermark: I have no power, no authority, so I can "browbeat" as much as I like, nobody has to listen to me, so it's not browbeating. The sophistry is ignoring the argument just because you don't like the tone. Just because people called science "natural philosophy" does not make it a branch of philosophy--- it operated by different rules of discourse right from the start, and it had objective experiments to sort out arguments, right from wrong. The philosophers didn't have an objective criterion for logic until Russell introduced formal logic and Carnap introduced Mach positivism. – Ron Maimon May 26 '15 at 14:20

Philip Kitcher's (1993) The Advancement of Science (Worldcat link) is the account of science I think of as closest to a contemporary version of Logical Empiricism/Positivism. Kitcher might deny that, and certainly his rhetoric in the book suggests he feels he's moved far away from that position. But when it comes down to it, some of us agree that he ends up pretty close to their views. He adds a sociological dimension to science (though that was not actually entirely lacking in the Vienna circle, either), but what he adds it to, and even the way he adds it, is pretty traditional LP.

One other place to look is in the HOPOS or "History of Philosophy of Science" movement. They now have a journal by that title. Among the philosophers working recently under that heading are a number of folks who are pretty sympathetic to classical LE/LP and they sometimes argue for the contemporary relevance of Vienna Circle positions and arguments. If you're interested in their early legacy in North America post-war you might also look at the Minnesota Studies volume "Logical Empiricism in North America" (contents/Worldcat).


Ernest Gellner was both a philosopher and a social anthropologist. He believed that positivism was the correct philosophy, but the logical positivists had expressed it badly. Rather than being an analysis of how all knowledge is obtained, Gellner thought that positivism should be seen as a quasi-ethical principle of how one ought to obtain knowledge. This position is interesting but a bit hard to grasp. A few quotes may help to explain it. The first is from the essay "Gellner's Positivism" by Ian Jarvie (in The Social Philosophy of Ernest Gellner, eds. John Hall and Ian Jarvie):

As Gellner construes philosophy, it [...] should, among other things, be partly empirical: the facts of the world make a philosophical difference. The overwhelming fact of the modern world makes a decisive philosophical difference. Furthermore, the particular philosophy of the facts so scorned by the Oxford disciples of the later Wittgenstein, namely positivism, seems to Gellner the correct philosophy -- even if it was seldom properly worked out by those who adhered to it (e.g. the logical positivists). This last qualification merely points to the fact that Gellner is a positivist yes, but something of a positivist sui generis because modern positivisms are 'trite and scholastic'. (p. 524)

Gellner elaborates his position on the theory of knowledge in his book Legitimation of Belief, in the essay "Positivism against Hegelianism" (in his book Relativism and the Social Sciences; Gellner memorably concludes this essay by saying: "the positivists are right. For Hegelian reasons." p. 67) and in an article entitled "An ethic of cognition" (in his book Spectacles and Predicaments). In "An ethic of cognition" Gellner writes:

The key idea in empiricism is the sovereignty of experience, and above all the exclusive and sole sovereignty of experience, in cognitive matters. What seems a trite truism (we learn by experience) becomes an unbelievably daring, radical, destructive, and difficult doctrine if reformulated more strongly so as to say -- we learn in no other way. (p. 169)

In particular, Gellner sees positivism as a method that excludes knowledge obtained through divine revelation, such as from a holy text. As Jarvie notes, "The positivism to which Gellner gives almost unqualified approval is d'Holbach's Le systéme de la nature" (Op. cit., p. 523). D'Holbach's 1770 book is sometimes called the "Bible of atheism" and is a classic Enlightenment account of a materialistic description of the universe. Small wonder that Gellner sometimes called himself an "Enlightenment fundamentalist."

Gellner sees positivism as the denial of the kind of world-views offered by religion, world-views in which the True, the Good and Beautiful converge within a cosmic story that dispels all doubt. These ideological world-views are not exclusively religious -- other all-encompassing belief systems that combine knowledge with morality are also excluded by positivism:

So, the sheer distribution of faith and disbelief itself confirms the truth of faith. Only those devoid of Grace doubt the existence of God; only neurotic resisters doubt the insights of depth psychology; only class enemies fail to see the cogency of scientific historical materialism [...] (p. 166)

Gellner defines positivism, or empiricism, as the rejection of these ideological worlds -- of religion, Marxist historical materialism, and so on:

What is empiricism, in general? The rough but correct definition, i.e., the one which brings out what really matters about the doctrine, is also highly paradoxical. It runs approximately as follows: empiricism is the a priori exclusion of a certain class of possible worlds, namely those worlds which satisfy some very deep general moral yearnings, roughly indicated above. (p. 168)

As Jarvie noted, Gellner believed that empirical facts about the modern world make a difference to epistemology. In particular, the most important fact of this kind is what he called "the Big Divide":

The biggest, most conspicuous single fact about the human world is the Big Divide between what may roughly be called the industrial-scientific societies and the Rest. The former possess, for good or ill, enormous manipulative and predictive powers over nature (though not over social processes), endowing them with the means both of mass destruction and of mass affluence and leisure. The latter miserably scrape a precarious living by agriculture or even cruder methods. Their techniques for either feeding or killing people are slow, inefficient, and labour-intensive. (p. 175)

Thus, positivism should be formulated so that it takes into account the Big Divide:

The importance of original, Comtian positivism was that it combined an articulation of the model with a historico-sociological awareness of the Big Divide. The trite and scholastic nature of many twentieth-century formulations of positivism are a consequence of an interest restricted to the model alone. The empiricist story of how an individual accumulates information about the world, is only useful if treated as an account of how some societies (but some only) have learned to investigate nature, and so as a parable of the Big Divide. (pp. 175f)

Gellner's position is that any attempt to prove the correctness of positivism as a theory of knowledge by means of a purely logical argument is doomed to fail. There is no way to prove, by logical argument alone, to someone who believes in an ideological world-view that he is wrong:

What is important is the fact that we have no logical or independent way of proving that such a 'circular' world, or strictly speaking a world sustained by reasoning which seems circular to an outside and hostile critic (or outside and hence hostile), cannot exist. On the contrary: it could well exist. A world so constructed as to make its most important features manifest to the good, and obscured from the wicked, might well exist. Perhaps, indeed, it does exist: and perhaps this world is just such a world. There is nothing in the very least logically self-contradictory in such a supposition. It cannot be excluded by logic. And it cannot be excluded by fact either, for it is constructed precisely in a way such that all facts can be accommodated. (p. 166)

Positivism should be seen as a quasi-ethical principle about how one ought to think and obtain knowledge, and as a rejection of all-encompassing world-views that combine the True and the Good. One more quote from Ernest Gellner's essay "An ethic of cognition":

Thus empiricism is normally presented as an account of how in fact we know (through experience), or sometimes as a metaphysic (the world is made up of experiences), such that, on either interpretation, certain worlds which defy or evade experience are, as a corollary or consequence of the initial position, excluded. On my account, all this is back-to-front. The essence or real starting point of the position is the exclusion of certain kinds of world, in an a priori manner. A certain possible misunderstanding should perhaps here be prevented: people may assume that describing a theory as quite an aprioristic one, is an attempt to denigrate it. This is in no way intended. Empiricism is an a priori doctrine; and it is also a good doctrine. (p. 171)


Logical positivism has two sides, the side that presumes the observable universe can make sense of everything, and the side that insists nothing less precise than physics has any value.

The former is alive and kicking. For an approachable version of a hard-core reductivism that banishes the specialness of mind, you might try Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness, Explained". Most active philosophers accept some kind of reductivism as at least one aspect of the ultimate truth. Science has become compelling even for the very wooly-minded.

But the other side is just insulting hubris. We see very clearly, having looked at a wider swath of logics and grammars and faced down more complex aspects of science, that some things are meaningful without being clear, and are in no way improved by being reduced to finer terms. For instance, we cannot simplify the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics to absolute terms without just lying. And making it 'easier to understand' is accomplished by adding pointless extravagances like infinitely many parallel worlds. That is getting more vague, not more precise, just in a way that appeals to some intuition we share.

There is too much proof that even science needs to paw through muddled intuitions with important internal conflicts. We have wave-particle duality, we have group minds creating very convincing memories of nonexistent events, and highly crafted placebos (like hypnotism, acupuncture, and narrative therapies) that are stronger than real medicine, etc. They are not just going away because someone insists we not think about them.

Even if reduction is always possible, sometimes the right direction to go is not 'downward', or there is no clear definition of downward itself that is not clearly 'upward' at the same time. Emergentism and other forms of compromise imply that a less thoroughly grounded explanation is sometimes a better one, and positivism insists that will never be true, simply by defining the possibility away.

From an intuitionstic point of view, humans have evolved many sorts of conventions for making sense of the world, that are broadly shared, and it is only logical to use all of them, to the extent we can get those shared intuitions expressed in ways we can truly agree upon. Whether or not we could do with fewer is no longer a reasonable concern, once absolute reduction to a totally minimal set has failed. So given the weaknesses in the most basic approaches, like naive set theory, and first order arithmetic, we should look 'around' instead of 'down' for clarity.

  • Which positivist(s) are you describing when you say "logical positivism has two sides"? – ChristopherE May 31 '15 at 18:09

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